—”H. P. Lovecraft” by Elizabeth Toldridge, Leaves #1 (Summer 1937)
Elizabeth Augusta Toldridge was a poet, who had worked as a clerk for the U. S. government, and the author of two books of poetry: The Soul of Love (1910) and Mother’s Love Songs (1911). She sold fiction and poetry, sometimes under her own name and sometimes under the name of her father, Barnet Toldridge. (Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw8)
In the letters of H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Catherine Lucille Moore was sometimes “sister Kate”—and Elizabeth Toldridge was “Aunt Lizzy.” (O Fortunate Floridian!360) And to Toldridge herself, Lovecraft was “Judge.” Lovecraft had first encountered Toldridge’s verse in 1924 when he was enlisted as a judge for a poetry contest, in which she was an entrant. They finally began a correspondence when Toldridge wrote to Lovecraft about the contest in 1928, and they would continue to write to one another until 1937 and Lovecraft’s death. (LETAR 7) Barlow, who would be named Lovecraft’s literary executor, visited Toldridge in her home in Washington, D.C. in 1934 and 1936, and she received copies of his amateur publications such as the Dragon-Fly.
Lovecraft and Barlow encouraged Toldridge to submit her poetry for publication, and to join the National Amateur Press Association, of which they were both members. Some of her poetry was published in the same amateur journals where Barlow and Lovecraft’s work was published. In 1934, she proposed a collection of poetry for publication to Alfred A. Knopf with the title Winnings, with Lovecraft’s support, but it did not come to fruition.
In late 1936, Barlow commenced gathering material for a new amateur periodical titled Leaves, which consisted of material from Lovecraft and his circle of friends and correspondents: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, etc. Most of these were incidentals: unsold manuscripts from the pulps, bits of poetry or prose, some of them taken from Lovecraft’s letters. The first issue, published after Lovecraft’s death, contained two poems by Elizabeth Toldridge: “Ephemera” and “H. P. Lovecraft.”
Nothing is known about the writing of “H. P. Lovecraft.” Given the subject and the date of publication, it is likely a memorial piece written in the event of Lovecraft’s death, but it is also possible that Toldridge intended it as a living tribute to her dear friend and correspondent of nine years. She had already written one such work “Divinity,” which she had sent to Lovecraft in 1929. (LETAR 78, 396)
“H. P. Lovecraft” is certainly a tribute to the “cosmic horror” which Lovecraft championed in their letters and his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It also touches on one of the great effects that Toldridge had on Lovecraft:
[…] it is clear that his correspondence with Toldridge strongly influenced his atempts to avoid artificial diction and to cultivate greater expression of imagery and emotion, all while loosening his former draconian strictures of versification.
—S. T. Joshi, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw8
While it may be too much to say that without Toldridge there would be no “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet-cycle, it is apparent that the correspondence was a broadening influence for both of them: Lovecraft to focus more on content than form, and Toldridge opened to the world of weird fiction. As an homage, “H. P. Lovecraft” definitely showcases that admiration and appreciation for the weird imagination.
“H. P. Lovecraft” was first published in Leaves #1 (Summer 1937), and republished in Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw (Hippocampus Press, 2014).
The impact of female editors of pulp magazines is not always acknowledged, and this is especially true when considering the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and Mythos fiction. Three of these women stand out: Dorothy McIlwraith, the editor of Weird Tales (1940-1954); Mary Gnaedinger, editor of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953); and Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor of Fantastic (1958-1965). Together, these three women would essentially bridge the gap, accounting for most Mythos magazine fiction that was published between 1940 and 1965.
After his death on 15 March 1937, Lovecraft’s literary legacy continued in Weird Tales, which had been the home to most of his professional fiction and continued to be the mainstay of his most devoted fans. Editor Farnsworth Wright published at least one Lovecraft item, be it a story or verse, in nearly every issue for the next three years—including collaborations with Hazel Heald and Zealia Bishop, stories which Wright had previously rejected, and material from amateur publications.
In late 1938, Weird Tales was sold to William Delaney, owner of Short Stories, Inc. and publisher of the successful Short Stories pulp magazine, which was edited by Dorothy McIlwraith, a Canadian woman of Scottish descent. (What About Dorothy McIlwraith?) The Weird Tales offices were moved to New York City in November of that year, with editor Farnsworth Wright moving his family from Chicago for the transition. Beginning with the December 1938 issue, Weird Tales officially listed its offices in New York. Robert Weinberg claimed that McIlwraith was made associate editor of Weird Tales at this point, but if so she was never listed as such in the magazine itself. (The Weird Tales Story6)
Farnsworth Wright had been suffering from progressive Parkinson’s disease for years, and the finances for Weird Tales continued to worsen. In part this may have been due to the death of prominent writers like Henry S. Whitehead (1932), Robert E. Howard (1936), and H. P. Lovecraft (1937), but it was also due in part to new competition. While Weird Tales had been the predominant purveyor of fantastic fiction in the pulp field since its inception in 1923, outlasting rivals such as Ghost Stories (1926-1932), Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), and Strange Tales (1931-1933), but in 1939 several strong competitors emerged, including Strange Stories (1939-1941), Unknown (1939-1943), Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953), Fantastic Adventures (1939-1953), Planet Stories (1939-1955), and Startling Stories (1939-1955).
Added to these woes, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia began cracking down on nude covers on the newstands; while aimed at the weird terror or “shudder” pulps, the ban also caught Weird Tales, which had been using nudes from Chicago artist Margaret Brundage for the cover, to both fan appreciation and consternation. In addition, Brundage was unable to continue to move to New York and found shipping her delicate pastels economically unfeasible—especially when publisher Bill Delaney cut payment rates for artists. (Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage32) Delany also tried changes to reduce costs and increase sales:
Delaney was more concerned than Henneberger or Cornelius in turning the pulp into a paying, profit-making proposition. His first idea was to increase the page count from 128 to 160 pages. He also used a cheaper quality of paper, making the issue look even thicker than before. The first of these thick issues appeared in February 1939. However, the idea did not catch on and sales dropped steadily. Another of Delaney’s ideas was to cut rates, both to artists and authors. the policy showed as quality quickly dropped. In another effort to boost sales, the size was cut to 128 pages in September 1939 and the price was dropped to 15 cents. The magazine still did not sell. (The Weird Tales Story6)
In January 1940, Farnsworth Wright left Weird Tales; the magazine by this point had gone to a bimonthly schedule, and his final issue as editor was March of that year. While some sources claim Wright retired or resigned, what few firsthand accounts I’ve come across suggest he was fired:
I am no longer connected with Weird Tales. Miss McIlwraith has taken over the editorship. The publisher was losing too heavily, and he figured that the elimination of my salary would help to cut down the deficit.
—Farnsworth Wright to Virgil Finlay, 17 Jan 1940, BOK 66
The magazine has two stories and four poems of mine (accepted by Farnsworth Wright) still unpublished, but I think seriously of withdrawing these, even though I need the money like hell and am not likely to find another market for these particular items. Wright was let out by the publishers to cut down expenses, and W.T.is now being edited by a woman, who also edits Strange Stories. [sic] It is to be hoped that Wright will soon secure another editorship, or perhaps even start a rival magazine himself. In the meanwhile, W.T.‘s best contributors are sticking with him, in the belief that he has had a raw deal.
Wright was cold-bloodedly fired from Weird Tales, because of circulation drop. It’s being carried on by McIlwraith. Wright is hit pretty hard, and our gang has pledged to boycott the mag. If Wright succeeds in getting another publisher interested in backing a new weird mag, we’ll submit only to him. It’s all we can do for one of the best and most liked editors in our field. With Wellman, Juttner, Hamilton, Quinn, Williamson, and others not submitting to Weird, I’m thinking McIlwraith will have to print blank pages.
When he was dismissed because of physical disabilities, many of the younger contributors to W.T. emoted all over the place, and waged a campaign to boycott the magazine. I did not join in this piece of juvenile idiocy. To expect a publisher to retain an editor incapable of coming to work was unrealism beyond the norm, even for youth! Finally, Wright’s successor, Dorothy McIlwraith, certainly was not responsible for his having been relieved of duty. As editor of Short Stories, her position was far more important than was the editorship of W.T. All she could gain was extra work, a bonus of headaches. Why penalize her by depriving her of desirable contributors?
None of these loyal nit-wits realize that the publisher scrapped Wright’s long established editorial policies, and told Dorothy what to do, and how to do it. As an employee, she had to obey orders, or, bail out. Anyone who ever knew the magazine business was aware that her leading magazine, Short Stories, was for a readership far more discriminating and mature than that of the W.T. fanciers. —Price, Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others112
After Wright left WEIRD TALES (banished into outer space, is the way he wrote me about it), I happened to be in New York. I found out that he was living out at Jackson Heights, so I went out to see him, and was always glad I did, for he died only a few weeks later.
—Edmond Hamilton, “He That Hath Words,” Deeper Than You Think#2, Jul 1968, 12
Farnsworth Wright died on 12 June 1940. Dorothy McIlwraith took up the editorship with the May 1940 issue of Weird Tales, while simultaneously editing Short Stories, and would remain at the helm of both until Delaney sold the business in 1954. Assisting her was Lamont Buchanan, credited as the associate editor and referred to as the art editor
Having inherited a magazine that was bleeding readers and in the shadow of Wright’s departure, McIlwraith’s tenure in what turned out to be Weird Tales’ waning days is often overlooked or mischaracterized. Robert Weinberg’s comments echo those of many critics down the years:
As an editor, Ms. McIlwraith was a competent craftsman but was not on the same level as Farnsworth Wright. She was a veteran pulp editor and handled the magazine as best she could. Her biggest trouble was that she was not as familiar with weird fiction as her predecessor. Another problem was that her ideas on what Weird Talesshould be were somewhat narrower in scope than the beliefs Wright worked by. A publisher who did not let her run the magazine with as free a hand was no help. She did the best she could. (The Weird Tales Story43)
This is damning with faint praise; while Wright was a personable and intelligent editor, he was also notoriously indecisive, rejecting some of the best work of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers; and Weird Tales under his watch was often characterized by wide variety as Wright chased the readers in the next pulp over with planetary science fiction by Edmond Hamilton & Otis Adelbert Kline, shudder pulps or detective pulps with Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard’s bloody historical adventures, hero pulps with Paul Ernst’s abominable Doctor Satan series—and that leaves out such ambitious botches as The Moon Terror and Other Stories (1927), Oriental Stories/The Magic Carpet Magazine (1930-1934), and Wright’s Shakespeare Library (1935), all of which ultimately failed and drew resources away from Weird Tales.
McIlwraith & Delaney faced a crowded market, and yet they were still paying the lowest rate of the fantasy pulps, 1 cent per word. Changes were made; the popular “Weird Tales Reprint” feature which Wright had instituted was dropped, as were serials, with the magazine promising “All Stories Complete” and “All Stories New—No Reprints.” McIlwraith convinced several of her most prominent authors at Short Stories to submit material for Weird Tales, including H. Bedford Jones, “The King of the Pulps.” While she couldn’t always afford to keep them, Weird Tales under McIlwraith’s direction continued to see the talents of some of the greatest artists and writers of the 40s and 50s: Ray Bradbury, Greye Le Spina, Robert Bloch, Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Joseph Payne Brennan, Robert Barbour Johnson, Fritz Leiber, Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, and Kelly Freas, to name a few.
One valid criticism of McIlwraith’s tenure is general failure to engage with writers, artists, or fans on the same level as Wright. Under her editorship, the letter-column “The Eyrie” ceased to be a fan-forum, but a place where authors could expand on the background of their stories. In its place was started “The Weird Tales Club”—those who wrote in received a free membership card and had their names and addresses posted and encouraged to write to each other, but there was no apparent effort to generate an official fan club newsletter or real organization. Remembrances of McIlwraith are far fewer and less personal. Still, not all commentary on McIlwraith is negative:
But a magazine can’t survive by living off the past. It has to grow and change, like a living thing. Dorothy McIlwraith’s Weird tales did grow and change in several ways. there was a subtle difference in the whole attitude of the magazine. […] If anything, the new editor was more artistically minded than her predecessor. the glaringly trashy covers (imitative of the more successful sex and sadism pulps like Terror Tales and Horror Stories) and occasionally godawful formula story, which Wright seemed to regard as good business practices, disappeared. —Darrel Schweitzer, “What About Dorothy McIlwraith?” in WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales95
Actually, I think she’s been far too neglected; I can’t dismiss anyone who published Bradbury, Sturgeon, Brown and other top talents. And I think she would have published more, had she been given the budget to compete with Unknown Worlds, F&SFand the other comparable markets. But that lousy 1 cent a word—and sometimes bimonthly publication—induced few writers to remain in WT once better rates were obtainable elsewhere.
While McIlwraith courted new and old authors, and was restricted in reprints for the first few years by policy, Lovecraft and the nascent Cthulhu Mythos were far from neglected—but there was a shortage of material. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard were dead and with most of their Mythos-fiction already published in Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith largely alienated from fiction-writing (although he would contribute “The Enchantress of Sylaire” (Jul 1941), “The Master of the Crabs” (Mar 1948), and”Morthylla” by Clark Ashton Smith (May 1953)), and after Lovecraft’s death few of his immediate circle such as Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, or Robert Bloch seemed interested in continuing the shared mythology…but there was August Derleth.
We plan to use “The Sandwin Compact” in the next issue which will be made up—that is, November, published September first
Arkham House, founded by August Derleth & Howard Wandrei after the death of Lovecraft explicitly to publish his fiction, had done just that in 1939 with The Outsider & Others—and much of their catalog for the next ten years would include reprints of stories that had first appeared in Weird Tales, and Arkham House would take out full-page advertisements in the pulp for their books. Derleth, a tireless promoter of Lovecraft’s work and a frequent contributor to the magazine as a writer, began to develop a series of original Mythos fiction in the magazine, beginning with “The Sandwin Compact” (Jan 1941) and “Beyond the Threshold” (Sep 1941).
Derleth had also become the de facto literary executor of Lovecraft’s fiction, and as material was uncovered that had not previously appeared in Weird Tales, sold it to McIlwraith for Weird Tales; this included “The Mound” by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft (Jan 1941), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (May & Jul 1941), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (Jan 1942, with its classic illustration by Hannes Bok), and “Herbert West—Reanimator” by H. P. Lovecraft (May, July, Sep, Nov 1942; Sep, Nov 1943). The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was also uncovered from Lovecraft’s files during this period, but if Derleth offered it to McIlwraith, she turned it down—as she did sword & sorcery fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “Fahfrd & Grey Mouser” series, which appeared in Unknown.
Wartime paper rationing and lackluster sales still hit hard, however. Weird Tales dropped to 112 pages in 1943, and the ban on reprints was dropped; Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets would be reprinted (May 1944; Jan, Sep 1946; Jan, Mar 1947), as well as “The City” (Jul 1950), “The Horror at Red Hook” (Mar 1952), and “Hallowe’en in a Suburb” by H. P. Lovecraft (Sep 1952). Eager for a new attraction, McIlwraith also looked for a series character from a promising regular:
John Thunstone first appeared in 1943, after Wright retired as editor of Weird Tales and was succeeded by Dorothy McIlwraith. She and her associate, Lamont Buchanan, sat down with me for several careful discussions of how Thunstone might act and look, and what he might find to do.
Wellman’s occult detective was a success, and he would tip his hat to Lovecraft by including the Necronomicon in the Thunstone story “Letters of Cold Fire” (May 1944)—the same issue where the page count was reduced to 96 pages. The success of Lovecraft’s fiction and Derleth’s pastiches apparently encouraged McIlwraith and Derleth to mine this vein a little deeper:
I too have had a good many letters through the Arkham House clientele, if they respond as well to ‘The Dweller in Darkness’ I’ll no doubt have to do other stories in the same Lovecraftian vein—though I’ll wait for the green light from you before going ahead.”
McIlwraith published “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Mar 1944), “The Dweller in Darkness” (Nov 1944), and “The Watcher from the Sky” (Jul 1945). In the September, the world war ended with the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a science fiction weapon from the pulps becoming a terrible and deadly reality at last.
Derleth also took advantage of the new reprint feature by agenting weird stories from English authors like William Hope Hodgson that Arkham House was publishing. With Derleth’s regular contributions (sometimes published under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon), reprint material he was supplying, and his original Mythos fiction, something had to give…and did:
Sorry I forgot to mention The Lurker on[sic] the Threshold. I just don’t see how we could manage it for Weird. I don’t feel serials in an every other month magazine are good, anyway, and such long installments are out for the duration—[because] of the paper restrictions.
We have Grendon’s “Mr. George,” “The Hog” by Hodgson as well as several other novelttes from other sources […] and now you send along “Boyd”…Frankly, we like this Cthulhu the least of all our problem material, so it would seem logical to pass it up for Weird Tales —Dorothy McIlwraith to August Derleth, 30 July 1946, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos151
The Lurker at the Threshold was the first of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, although it was written almost entirely by Derleth, based around two brief fragments of Lovecraft; Arkham House later published the book the same year. McIlwraith also rejected the first submission of “The Testament of Claiborne Boyd,” part of the series that Derleth would collect as the stitch-up novel The Trail of Cthulhu. These decisions, as much as anything, show that McIlwraith was not simply cashing in on Lovecraft or the Mythos.
What did happen is that someone not connected with Derleth or Lovecraft tried their hand at pastiche. McIlwraith published C. Hall Thompson‘s “Spawn of the Green Abyss” (Nov 1946) and “The Will of Claude Asher” (Jul 1947), probably seeing them as no more than superior Lovecraft pastiches. Derleth, who felt Lovecraft’s work belonged to Arkham House, responded:
Yes, I know of C. Hall Thompson. He borrowed flagrantly from HPL’s work, and we stopped it by writing to his editors pointing out his invasion of prorpietary interests, though we would probably have given him the green signal to go ahead if he had submitted his work to us first. this he did not do; so it had to stop. —August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Aug 1964, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos267-268
No more pastiches were published by Thompson in Weird Tales. Whether she believed Derleth’s legal bluster or simply didn’t wish to alienate such a regular contributor and advertiser is unclear, but there are signs that Weird Tales was still in financial trouble. With the September 1947 issue, WT raised the price from 15 to 20 cents per issue, while retaining the reduced page count. Three more of Derleth’s tales appeared in the following years: “Something in Wood” (Mar 1948), “The Whippoorwills in the Hills” (Sep 1948), and the formerly-rejected “The Testament of Clairborne Boyd” (Mar 1949). With the next issue, May 1949, the price was increased again to 25 cents per issue. He would manage to land more stories: “Something From Out There” (Jan 1951), “The Keeper of the Key” (May 1951), “The Black Island” (Jan 1952), which featured the use of atomic weapons against Cthulhu.
Derleth was the most prominent Mythos writer in Weird Tales during McIlwraith’s editorship, but arguably the best one was Robert Bloch, who published the third in his triptych with Lovecraft, “The Shadow from the Steeple” (Sep 1950), and the highly acclaimed “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (May 1951). Among the rewrites, McIlwraith chose Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” (Nov 1953).
In September 1953, adapting to market pressure, Weird Tales became a digest. McIlwraith apparently asked Derleth for more Mythos/Lovecraftian material, probably in a last-ditch effort to spur readership. He responded with “posthumous collaborations” that Derleth had written based on some fragment of Lovecraft’s text or ideas in his commonplace book:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready—
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more—or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
“The Survivor” appeared in the July 1954 issue, the last of the Derleth Mythos contributions. She wrote to him:
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Weird Tales folded with the September 1954 issue; both it and Short Stories were sold, and McIlwraith moved on. The various Derleth Mythos stories would see print elsewhere, and be collected and printed in book form. So too, Arkham House would collect and publish many stories and authors from McIlwraith’s period of editorship during the following decades.
We do not have any extensive memoirs from McIlwraith, and most of what she has written about weird fiction are restricted to editorial comments in “The Eyrie”—but in 1954 she weighed in on H. P. Lovecraft and Weird Tales:
Alathough the first all-science-fiction magazine did not appear until 1926, Weird Talesmagazine with its very first issue inaugerated a policy of devoting some portion of its conctents to science fiction and has continud that policy from March of 1923 to date. There was always some conflict between those readers who wanted more space devoted to straight weird material—i.e., fantasy—as opposed to those who would have preferred additional science fiction. The man who helped reocncile those two elements was H. P. Lovecraft, who in his own popular fashion blended weird and horror elements into a credible sceintific background to come up with a combination which satisfied all readers. Lovecraft influenced a great many of the younger writers […] —Dorothy McIlwraith, Editor’s Choice in Science Fiction185
She was not wrong, especially on the final point.
In evaluating Dorothy McIlwraith’s role with regard to Lovecraft and the Mythos, it is difficult not to consider the symbiotic role played by Derleth and Arkham House in the pulp’s final 14 years. While many of its stories were selected for reprint in anthologies long before this was the norm for science fiction, Weird Tales never issued a successful anthology of its own material—Arkham House largely fulfilled that role during McIlwraith’s time. By the same token, Weird Tales was exactly the market that Arkham House & August Derleth needed. Without McIlwraith, it seems unlikely that Derleth would have written Trail of Cthulhu, Mask of Cthulhu, or many of his posthumous collaborations—and whatever else may be thought of those works, as well as those of Bloch, Wellman, and Thompson, they helped keep the memory of Lovecraft alive for a new generation of readers.
But in this, Dorothy McIlwraith was not alone…
The Munsey Company practically invented the pulp magazine, with highly successful titles like Argosy going back to the turn of the century. With this large stock of stories, in 1939 they launched Famous Fantastic Mysteries primarily as a title to reprint them. The editor selected was Mary Gnaedinger, who also edited Fantastic Novels (1940-1941) and A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine (1949-1950).
Gnaedinger and McIlwraith were technically rivals, but since Weird Tales initially offered no reprints and Famous Fantastic Mysteries no original material, they seemed at least at first more complementary than anything—at least to contemporary eyes. FFM, however, paid better, so Gnaedinger was able to snatch away Virgil Finlay, one of the finest artists working in the pulps. She was also much more attentive to the growing science fiction and fantasy fandom, and catered the content of the magazine to the stories they wanted to read, republishing many now-classic works by Robert W. Chambers, A. Merritt, Arthur Machen, Ray Cummings…and even Weird Tales regulars.
Lovecraft however was not initially on the menu; though Gnaedinger managed to reprint “The Colour Out of Space” (Oct 1941), supplemented with the poem “For H. P. Lovecraft” by Robert A. Lowndes. In 1943, Munsey sold Famous Fantastic Mysteries to All-Fiction Field, who retained Gnaedinger as editor and loosened her restrictions, allowing her to publish more original material. (Sisters of Tomorrow293) Gnaedinger took advantage of this by making arrangements with Arkham House to reprint some of Lovecraft’s fiction, with whom she had some dealings:
The Lurker on[sic] the Thresholdis an excellent fantastic story, but I regret to say that we have decided it is too specialized for the ordinary readers who undoubtedly form a large cross-section of our public. A great part of the story is written for the initiated fantasy fan, and cutting would spoil it. Not that I think you would want to see it cut. —Mary Gnaedinger to Derleth, 6 Feb 1945, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos191
Ironically, this was the same general rejection that McIlwraith had given Derleth when he pitched the idea of serializing The Lurker at the Threshold in Weird Tales. However, Gnaedinger was open to reprinting more works, and so in due course Famous Fantastic Mysteries hosted “The Outsider” (Jun 1950), “The Music of Erich Zann” (Mar 1951), and “Pickman’s Model” (Dec 1951), all “Published by permission of Arkham House.”
Fan-scholars and poets like Virginia “Nanek” Anderson also made their appearance in FFM. Two pieces in particular stand out: “Masters of Fantasy: Howard Phillips Lovecraft – The Outsider” (Aug 1947) and “Masters of Fantasy: Arthur Machen: Inspirator of Lovecraft” (Dec 1948); while credited as to Neil Austin, it has been suggested these pieces were actually written by arch-fan Forrest J. Ackermann.
There is a little mystery to the Famous Fantastic Mystery reprints, with the main one being: Why FFM? In 1941, Weird Tales wasn’t publishing reprints, so the reprint of “The Colour Out of Space” isn’t exactly cutting into their market; but in the 1950s it seems unusual that Derleth would offer reprints to FFM when Weird Tales was an open market—unless either McIlwraith had already turned him down, or Gnaedinger offered more money. Either seems a likely possibility, but the details to the deal have not come to light.
Near the end of its run, Gnaedinger also published a few works by Robert E. Howard with connections to the Mythos, notably “Skull-Face” (Dec 1952)—whose villain Kathulos was once feverishly debated to have a connection to Cthulhu by the fans of Weird Tales—and “Worms of the Earth” (Jun 1953), which appeared in the final issue.
Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded the year before Weird Tales; while it had a good 14-year run, the pulp market was largely collapsing in on itself, competing both with comic books and the burgeoning paperback, which offered another cheap way to reprint fiction. Mary Gnaedinger continued to keep in close touch with fans, and while she may have published little original Mythos fiction, she was a sensitive barometer to what the fans wanted—and strove to give it to them. In the early 1950s, that was more Lovecraft.
Cele Goldsmith Lalli
Science fiction magazines weathered the collapse of the pulps a little better than most, and writers that had cut their teeth at Weird Tales and Unknown would go on to find success in the 60s with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and Analog Science Fiction and Fact (which evolved from Astounding). It was in this Cold War/Space Race atmosphere that Cele Goldsmith (later Cele Goldsmith Lalli) became editor of both Amazing Stories and its companion Fantastic from 1958-1965, when the magazines were sold.
Cele Goldsmith combined the approaches of both McIlwraith and Gnaedinger: she listened to the fans, and she was willing to give them both original fiction and classic reprints. In the May 1960 issue of Fantastic she republished “The Challenge From Beyond” (at least Lovecraft’s portion of it), but paired it with fan-scholar Sam Moskowitz’ essay “A Study in Horror: The Eerie Life of H. P. Lovecraft.” Two years later, she published Derleth’s posthumous collaboration “The Shadow out of Space” (Dec 1962), which had appeared a few years earlier in the Arkham House volume The Survivor and Others (1957), containing Derleth’s posthumous collaborations from Weird Tales.
Finally, in Goldsmith published two new Mythos stories, and from an author that wasn’t part of the Arkham House stable—although if Derleth ever caused a stink about it like C. Hall Thompson, it has never come to light. The stories were “The Dunstable Horror” (Apr 1964) and “The Crib of Hell” (May 1965), both by “Arthur Pendragon”—thought to possibly be the pen-name of well-known Fantastic contributor Arthur Porges. While it was still rare for Mythos fiction to be published outside the aegis of Arkham House, Derleth could not police every magazine forever.
What these three women accomplished, from 1939-1965, was essentially to help keep the Mythos alive in the pulps. Because of the controlling nature that Arkham House had on Lovecraft’s material, and Derleth’s production of additional Mythos material, a sizable amount of what they published came from Derleth or went through him—but not all of it. These editors held authority over their own magazines, and while they might pay Derleth for a story, what they published was ultimately their own decision. What we get, in their magazines, are the inklings of original Mythos material outside of what August Derleth approved to be printed, and this in professional magazines, not just the fanzines.
Maybe that is a small thing, in the great scheme of the universe. None of these editors appear to have been particular devotees of Lovecraft or the Mythos…but neither were they ignorant of it. They knew their business, and Lovecraft and the writers he inspired was a part of that.
I’ve seen the new Wonder Stories, & agree that it seems to be improving. A revision client of mine has a story in the current issue—”The Man of Stone”—in which you may possibly recognise my prose style.
I note, by the way, a story in the Oct. Wonder Stories (which featured my “God of the Asteroid”) which I am willing to gamble was revised and partly “ghost-written” by H.P. The tale was called “The Man of Stone,” and was signed by one Hazel Heald. It contains reference to Tsathoggua, the Book of EIbon, The Goat with a Thousand Young, etc.
In 1932, Hazel Heald was a divorcee, working as a clerk or bookkeeper in Massachusetts. She had some aspirations to be a writer, and had developed a macabre plot:
In this same year, 1932, I formed a little New England writers’ club of my own, and one of my members, a divorcee was very anxious to succeed in the weird writing field. She sent me an original manuscript with a very passable plot, yet told unconvincingly and amatuerishly. I let Lovecraft read it when he next came to our house on Pearl Street, and he agreed that it did have possibilities.
I wrote to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club-member and told her about H.P.L., adding that he, too, was divorced. Would she like to have him look over her manuscript, “The Man of Stone”? She would! So I gave Lovecraft a note of introduction to Hazel Heald and another chapter in his life was soon taking place.
—Muriel M. Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street22-23
Lovecraft’s fiction writing had been dwindling since his collaborations with Zealia Bishop, most of which failed to find publication during his lifetime, although he had just managed to complete “The Dreams in the Witch House.” He was still doing revision work, however, and traveling as best as his means allowed. This included a very exhausting trip to Quebec on a cheap fare:
Early the following Tuesday morning, before I had gone to work, Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. folds of skin hanging froma skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves, on which he was functioning. that evening he had a dinner appointment in Somerville with a woman for whom he was doing some revision, and he had plans for things he wanted to do during the day.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale59
Eddy, who apparently conceived a notion that the two divorcees might kindle a romance, provides a rose-tinted account of the meeting:
She invited him up to her house for Sunday supper and raanged to have everything that H.P.L. liked best on the menu. they ate by candlelight, and he was greatly intrigued by her thoughtfulness in not having a household of people to greet him. He used to say he could think better whn there were not too many people around to disturb his train of thought.
He tactfully explained to Hazel that her story, though very good, really needed a little touching up here and there, something to stir the reader’s imagination. Would she allow him to do it for her? He’d consider it an honor and a privilege. She agreed.
—Muriel Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 23
Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft would go on to collaborate on five stories, beginning with “The Man of Stone” and continuing with “The Horror in the Museum,” “Winged Death,” “Out of the Aeons,” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Lovecraft’s brief notes in his letters suggest that the latter stories were essentially ghost-written by him, based on a brief outline or idea provided by Heald, exactly as was the case with Zealia Bishop. “The Man of Stone,” however, may have started off as an actual text.
Writing on 30 September 1944 of one such story, “The Man of Stone,” the late Hazel Heald admitted, “Lovecraft helped me on this story as much as on the others, and did actually rewrite paragraphs. He would criticize paragraph after paragraph and pencil remarks beside them, and then make me rewrite them until they pleased him.” But of course Lovecraft did considerably more with Hazel Heald’s later stories: he rewrote them from beginning to end so that they are essentially Lovecraft stories, retaining only the plot or central theme of the author whose by-line appeared over the work—and not even this in every case.
—August Derleth, “Lovecraft’s Revisions” in The Horror in the Museumxi-xii
It was typical of Lovecraft in his collaborations to virtually re-write the prose, so that is not surprising; the Cthulhu Mythos references in the story are certainly his addition, and possibly Mad Dan’s whole diary portion was Lovecraft’s own invention, to explain the mechanism of the action. What then is left of Heald’s original work?
Probably quite a bit, at least in conception, overall plot, and characterization. The love triangle of the woman with an abusive spouse, enamored with a younger artist, is definitely outside of H. P. Lovecraft’s normal milieu. The latter part of the story especially, with Rose Morris’ diary providing her point of view, is very exceptional for any story Lovecraft had a hand in. Even if we can see little Lovecraftian touches (the parallels between Mad Dan’s practicing “all sorts of hellish ceremonies handed down by his mother’s people” and “The Dunwich Horror” are especially acute), it’s rare for any Lovecraftian tale to touch on the personal horror of domestic abuse:
No one will ever know what I went through as his wife. It was not simply common cruelty—though God knows he was cruel enough, and beat me often with a leather whip. It was more—more than anyone in this age can ever understand. He was a monstrous creature, and practiced all sorts of hellish ceremonies handed down by his mother’s people. He tried to make me help in the rites—and I don’t dare even hint what they were. I would not, so he beat me. It would be blasphemy to tell what he tried to make me do. I can say he was a murderer even then, for I know what he sacrificed one night on Thunder Hill. He was surely the Devil’s Kin. I tried four times to run away, but he always caught and beat me. Also, he had a sort of hold over my mind, and even over my father’s mind.
—Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Man of Stone”
It is worth noting that Lovecraft would never again have quite such a strong female viewpoint in any of his works.
The story in broad strokes has parallels with “The Mask” in Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow, which likewise deals with a lover’s triangle and petrification through some unsubtle alchemy. It is impossible to say if this was intentional, with Chambers’ providing inspiration or simply coincidence. Did Heald come up with the petrification bit? Or was it originally a more conventional sort of poisoning? As no manuscript, notes, or correspondence have come to light from the collaboration, we’ll probably never know for certain.
“The Man of Stone” was published in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories (Oct 1933), then being edited by David Lasser. There were few “fantastic” pulps on the market, and whether this acceptance was because Weird Tales rejected the story or if Heald submitted it to Wonder Stories first is unclear. Unfortunately, Heald eventually ran into a common problem with many writers: non-payment.
One of my clients is about to write an indignant letter to the Authors’ League concerning his financial shotcomings—though I imagine its effect will be close to zero.
Yes—my Gernsback-mulcted client is Mrs. Heald—whose story was nothing extra, although it surely deserved some remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 10 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 404
Smith gave Lovecraft the name and address of Ione Weber, a lawyer in New York who made a specialty of suing Gernsback for non-payment; Lovecraft in turn passed the information to Heald, and Weber was apparently successful in getting her client’s money. (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 483) This is perhaps why all of the subsequent Heald-Lovecraft collaborations appeared in Weird Tales. Payment from WT was on publication, which could sometimes be months or years after the story was accepted, and even that often late during the 1930s due to the pressures of the Great Depression, as a consequence, it appears Heald owed Lovecraft some monies for his ghostwriting, which she partially paid off by typing his “The Thing on the Doorstep”:
Meanwhile (my hatred of the typewriter being stronger every day) I have had a delinquent client type the story I wrote last August, & have started the carbon on the rounds of the gang–beginning with Dwyer.
I lately had a client type my story of last August—”The Thing on the Doorstep” (which isn’t very satisfactory), & am circulating the carbon amongst the gang (you’ll get it in time).
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Nov 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 85
However, the stories were received with some praise by Weird Tales, even if Lovecraft’s friends quite clearly knew he had written most or all of them. One reader wrote in, unaware of the irony:
I cannot say enough in praise of the work of Hazel Heald. She is veritably a female Lovecraft. (Weird Tales Jun 1935)
It is likely that the financial and creative relationship would have gone on longer, but around 1934 Lovecraft ended it, though he and Heald continued to correspond. Lovecraft’s reasoning for this had nothing to do with the content of the writing, but personal and professional reasons:
But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 544
I have refused point-blank to do any more such jobs for Mrs. Heald & old de Castro & others—& recently declined to collaborate with Price on a sequel to the “Gates of the Silver Key”. I simply can’t tackle so much when my time & nervous energy are so limited—& when so many stories of my own are veritably howling to be written.
This was not the end of Lovecraft’s collaborations, but it was largely the end of his remunerative collaborations; from 1934 on his revisions were often with fans, and on a non-paying basis. Of the stories “howling to be written,” only two were finished: The Shadow Out of Time and “The Haunter of the Dark” before Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Heald would write of Lovecraft in Weird Tales (Jun 1937):
I want to express my sorrow in the passing of H. P. Lovecraft. He was a friend indeed to the struggling author, and many have started to climb the ladder of success with his kind assistance. To us who really knew him it is a sorrow that mere words cannot express. His was the helping hand that started me in the writers’ game and gave me the courage to carry on under the gravest difficulties. But we must try to think that he is “just away” on one of his longest journeys and that some day we will meet him again in the Great Beyond.
Hazel Heald herself would largely drop from view; whether or not she continued to write is unknown, but no more weird or pulp stories are known from her.
I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom2.43
Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.
In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.
In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision(2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.
Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:
Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian!276
In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.
As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:
[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale259-260
The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:
(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays5.243
As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:
Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.
Except for the final, culminating revelation.
It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.
When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.
The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.
We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.
There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:
“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.
“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.
Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:
Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision177
Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian!143
“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.
The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.
It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.
While visiting Magnolia, that beautiful, exclusive summer resort on the north shoe of Massachusetts, we often walked to Gloucester, which was a distance of about four miles. On our way we passed a beautiful esplanade. One evening while walking along this esplanade, the full moon reflecting its light in the water, a peculiar and unusual noise heard at a distance as of a loud snorting and grunting, the shimmering light forming a moon-path on the water, the round tops of the submerged piles in the water exposed a rope connecting them like a huge spider’s guy-line, gave the vivid imagination full play for an interesting weird tale. “Oh, Howard,” I exclaimed, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.” Said he, “Go ahead, and write it.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do it justice,” I answered. “Try it. Tell me what the scene pictures to your imagination.” And as we walked along we neared the edge of the water. Here I described my interpretation of the scene and the noises. His encouragement was so enthusiastic and sincere that when we parted for the night, i sat up and wrote the general outline which he later revised and edited. His continued enthusiasm the next day was so genuine and sincere that in appreciation I surprised and shocked him right then and there by kissing him. He was so flustered that he blushed, then he turned pale. When I chaffed him about it he said he had not been kissed since he was a very small child and that he was never kissed by any woman, not even by his mother or aunts, since he grew to manhood, and that he would probably never be kissed again. (But I fooled him.)
—Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft19
Born Sonia Haft Shafirkin to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire (modern Ukraine), by the time that Lovecraft and Sonia met she had been living in the United States some 20 years, had married and outlived her first husband (Samuel Greene), and had an adult daughter (Carol Weld) from that union. Sonia was a successful, highly-paid milliner in New York City, and had gotten involved in amateur journalism. Lovecraft met her at an amateur press convention in 1921, shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and the two began a correspondence which turned into a rather surprising courtship-in-letters. They would marry quickly and unexpected in 1924…but before that, they wrote this tale together.
There is no reason to doubt Sonia’s own account of the story’s genesis, and this makes it difficult to distinguish her prose from Lovecraft’s. The issue is exacerbated because little of Sonia’s own work has been published—her other two known fictional efforts, “Four O’Clock” and the play Alcestis both show evidence of being “touched up” by Lovecraft. Joshi in volume 4 of the variorum edition of the collected fiction of H. P. Lovecraft notes: “One supposes that Lovecraft retained a certain amount of prose by Greene.” Her image of the moon-path in particular is a recurring motif:
It was in the twilight, when grey sea-birds hovered low near the shore and a rising moon began to make a glittering path across the waters. The scene is important to remember, for every impression counts. On the beach were several strollers and a few late bathers; stragglers from the distant cottage colony that rose modestly on a green hill to the north, or from the adjacent cliff-perched Inn whose imposing towers proclaimed its allegiance to wealth and grandeur. […]
Minutes seemed lengthened into hours, and still that human snake of swaying torsos was seen above the fast rising tide. rhythmically it undulated; slowly, horribly, with the seal of doom upon it. thicker clouds now passed over the ascending moon, and the glittering path on the waters faded nearly out. […]
There was no line of bobbing heads now. The waters were calm and deserted, and broken only by the fading ripples of what seemed to be a whirlpool far out in the path of the moonlight whence the strange cry had first come. But as I looked along that treacherous lane of silvery sheen, with fancy fevered and senses overwrought, there trickled upon my ears from some abysmal sunken waste the faint and sinister echoes of a laugh.
—Greene & Lovecraft, “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”
It is an atypical tale by Lovecraft’s standards, much like his earlier collaborations “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) with Winifred Virginia Jackson. Like those stories, it is not a Mythos tale per se, although it seems likely that Lovecraft is behind the name of “Capt. Orne,” which is the name of one of the families he would later associate with Innsmouth. It has more plot than those dream-tales. The mocking laughter at the end and the strange inevitability of the victims’ doom is closer to a conte cruel than Lovecraft’s other efforts…but the real difference between this collaboration and previous efforts is its fate.
The story was written in 1922, during or shortly after the Magnolia visit (26 June – 5 July); and Lovecraft wrote on 11 Sep 1922 that at a party attended by several amateur journalism folk:
I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Greene read her “Four o’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—Lovecraft to Anne Gamwell, 9-11 Sep 1922, Letters from New York21
However, in March 1923 a new pulp appeared on the stands: Weird Tales. Lovecraft successfully submitted several stories to this magazine—including “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared as “The Invisible Monster” by Sonia H. Greene in the November 1923 issue. This was, then, Lovecraft’s first commercial collaboration, and Sonia’s only professional publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime.
This is one of the stories that marked the transition from Lovecraft as an amateur to a professional writer—and perhaps it is notable that it was Sonia who partnered with him in that, as she did later in their brief marriage. She was in many ways the catalyst for bringing Lovecraft to New York, which while painful for the man from Providence also led to much personal growth.
The “Elizabeth Berkeley” of “The Crawling Chaos” is Winifred Virginia Jackson—a now fairly well known poetess, formerly active in amateur journalism. The sketch (it is scarcely a story) is based on a curious dream of hers—which formed a sort of continuation of a previous dream of my own which I had related to her. I put the whole business in my own language, & tacked on a sort of aftermath in the Dunsanian style—for the thing dates from my most intensively Dunsanian period. It was my second & final collaboration with Miss Jackson, the first being “The Green Meadow” […] I took the title C. C. from my Nyarlathotep sketch (now repudiated) because I liked the sound of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, O Fortunate Floridian!191
In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jordan was an active contributor to amateur journalism, and had been associated with H. P. Lovecraft in that regard for some years. Lovecraft published her “Song of the North Wind” in his own amateur journal, The Conservative (vol. I, no. IV, 1916); Lovecraft may have had a hand in revising this and subsequent poems of hers in his amateur journals.
In the following years they would share editorial duties on amateur journals, and struck up a correspondence which led to two prose collaborations: “The Green Meadow” (eventually published in The Vagrant, Spring 1927) and “The Crawling Chaos” (The United Co-operative, Apr 1921). Both used pseudonyms for these stories: Jordan was “Elizabeth Berkeley,” and Lovecraft was “Lewis Theobald, Jun.” Despite the pseudonyms, the writing team was apparently an open secret; Lovecraft’s friend Alfred Galpin identified them by name in a review of the story in The United Amateur (Nov 1921).
Lovecraft describes the process of their collaboration in some subsequent letters:
Of genuinely fantastic dreamers, I have discovered but one in amateurdom—this being Mrs. Jordan. I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jordanian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, & which I am some time going to weave into a horror story, as I did “The Green Meadow” dream of earlier state, which I think I once hewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mind did not extend o far. It was only when I had relate my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. […] The more recent Jordan dream is very vivid, but peters out miserably. I shall use it only as far the point where the narrator reaches the palm tree. The narrator will be a neurotic youth of the Roderick Usher type. —H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 Nov 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner190
The enclosed fragment of a Jacksonian letter, written late 1918 or early 1919, is the nucleus of the story. As you will perceive, the whole bizarre setting comes from an actual dream of the poetess whilst in the clutches of influenza. This element of illness may account for much of the fantastic colouring, though in actual truth no drug was administered. I have, I think, mentioned before, that the genius of W> V. J. can produce hideous conceptions far outdoing any of mine, and remaining ineffective solely because of their creator’s singular helplessness in prose. […] I kept this dream outline a long time without utilising it—for being basically egotistical, I put mine own work first. Finally, last December, the authoress became impatient about it, so I threw the story together in a hurry. The colouring impressed me as opiate, so I supplies the dopy prologue. Then in analysing the nature of the dream, I found that the dominant points were a hellish pounding and an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Using these two latter “starters”, the denouement was fairly inevitable tome; so that although everything after the ninth line of page five in the printed version is my own, it is only broadly so; the impulse having been supplied by the original data. When I sent the finished story to W. V. J. I was amused by her idea that I must have actually seen the same supernal sights that he saw in the dream. Her overpowering imagination, conjoined to very scanty scientific attainments, makes her vaguely credulous of the supernatural and she cannot get rid of the notion that there may be an actual region o dream and vision which can be independently and objectively seen by different individuals. In this case she declared that I had described details of the strange interior, and of the architecture of the dream-house, which she had plainly noticed but had not described to me; which to her is proof that a common dream experience must underlie the work of both collaborators. […] frankly, I didn’t think the “Crawling Chaos” would going to make such a hit that anyone would notice it. —H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin108-109
The influenza epidemic swept the globe during the final stages of the First World War in 1918. In 1919 Winifred was living and working in Boston, putting out her own amateur journal The Bonnet. She had married an African-American man, Horace Jordan, and in 1919 they were divorced; she resumed her maiden name of Jackson around 1920 or 1921. It was in this fertile period, 1919-1920, that Lovecraft and Jackson shared their dreams and wrote their collaboration—Lovecraft borrowing the title from his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (The United Amateur, Nov 1920) which begins “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…”
Wetzel & Everts claim in Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance that at this point Winifred V. Jackson was at this point already the mistress of the famed Black editor and poet William Stanley Braithwaite, they were involved in the foundation of the B. J. Brimmer Publishing Co. in 1921, which Jackson would buy when it went bankrupt in 1927. Braithwaite would publish several of her poems in his anthologies, which would also include poets from the Harlem Renaissance. Lovecraft himself was not aware of Braithwaite’s race until 1918, when he wrote a vituperative, racist diatribe upon discovering the influential editor Braithwaite had been awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (LRK 137-138). Despite this, in 1930 Lovecraft and Braithwaite apparently had a brief correspondence. Jackson herself may have been of mixed race; she was included among “Colored” writers in William Henry Harrison, Jr.’s Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History, and A Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks (1921).
It is an open question as to whether Lovecraft was aware of the details of Winifred’s personal life; he makes no mention of her marriage or any association with Braithwaite in his published letters or his essays “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion Apr 1919) or “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (The United Amateur Mar 1921), although he was, from the name change, apparently very aware of her change in marital status.
Everts & Wetzel record the rumor that Jackson and Lovecraft were romantically inclined, or at least perceived to be by amateur journalism, but there is little evidence for this. The collaborators continued to associate until 1921, after which they appear to have gone their separate ways, Lovecraft rarely referring to Jackson in his subsequent letters—according to Everts, Lovecraft’s wife Sonia H. Greene would claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”
The speculation of an personal relationship between Jackson and Lovecraft, especially given his racism and her interracial marriage, tends to draw attention away from “The Crawling Chaos” as a work of fiction. Despite the title, the work does not feature Nyarlathotep and has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s Mythos. In the context that Lovecraft gives for Jackson’s portion it is possible to see there an echo of the plague that swept the world in 1918:
Of the future I had no heed; to escape, whether by cure, unconsciousness, or death, was all that concerned me. I was partly delirious, so that it is hard to place the exact moment of transition, but I think the effect must have begun shortly before the pounding ceased to be painful. […] The sensation of falling, curiously dissociated from the idea of gravity or direction, was paramount; though there was a subsidiary impression of unseen throngs in incalculable profusion, throngs of infinitely diverse nature, but all more or less related to me. Sometimes it seemed less as though I were falling, than as though the universe or the ages were falling past me. Suddenly my pain ceased, and I began to associate the pounding with an external rather than internal force. The falling had ceased also, giving place to a sensation of uneasy, temporary rest; and when I listened closely, I fancied the pounding was that of the vast, inscrutable sea as its sinister, colossal breakers lacerated some desolate shore after a storm of titanic magnitude. Then I opened my eyes.
If there is an image from the dream-portion that stands out, however, it is this:
Almost at the limit of vision was a colossal palm tree which seemed to fascinate and beckon me.
Palm trees are not normal for Massachusetts. It is an artifact of the exotic and unreal, intruding on the familiar. The palm tree, as much as anything, says that the narrator is in a different place from the one they know. It is the kind of image that might occur in a fever dream, the out-of-place element excepted through dream-logic.
The origin of the story in a dream echoed Lovecraft’s other collaboration from this period, “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts, and several of Lovecraft’s own tales that had their origins in dreams and nightmares; they parallel his fascination with Dunsany’s dreamland in “Idle Days on the Yann.” It was a period when Lovecraft, in the throes of amateur journalism, was sharing his dreams with others and putting them into prose—and Winifred Virginia Jackson was one of those who shared their dreams with Lovecraft.
After her association with Lovecraft ended in 1921, Jackson continued to pursue her own writing and publishing, although this resulted in only two books: Backwoods; Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944).
Moon over Japan,
White butterfly moon!
Where the heavy-lidded Buddhas dream
To the sound of the cuckoo’s call. . . .
The white wings of moon-butterflies
Flicker down the streets of the city,
Blushing into silence the useless wicks of round lanterns in the hands of girls.
—Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft, “Poetry & the Gods” (1920)
“Poetry and the Gods” was first published in the United Amateur (Sep 1920). It is a collaborative effort between Anna Helen Crofts and H. P. Lovecraft (who used the pen-name H. Paget-Lowe). Crofts and Lovecraft were both members and officials of the United Amateur Press Association, which set the stage for their collaboration. Little else is known about the creative affair, however: there are no references to “Poetry and the Gods” or Crofts in any of Lovecraft’s published correspondence; it is included on none of his own lists of his fiction, and was discovered and published by Lovecraft scholar George T. Wetzel in the 1950; in his Collected Essays, Lovecraft mentions Crofts only once, in the editorial “News Notes” (July 1921) (CE1.293):
Miss Anna H. Crofts is taking a summer course at Columbia University, where she is delving deeply into the technical secrets of pedagogy.
Anastasia Helen Crofts was a public school teacher for most of her life, retiring from teaching in 1942; according to “Anna Helen Crofts—The Rest of the Story” she married Joseph B. McCuen and passed away in Williamstown in 1975. “Poetry and the Gods” and another story, “Life” (United Amateur Jun 1921) are her only known published fiction.
The exact contribution of the co-authors to the final product is likewise a matter of speculation, as no manuscript or drafts survive. S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz in AnH. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (209) once conjectured:
Probably the impetus of the story came from Crofts; she may also have written the tidbit of free verse in the story, since HPL despised free verse […] The prose of the rest of the story appears to be HPL’s.
Ken W. Faig, Jr. in “The Strange Story of “Poetry and the Gods'” (PDF) however discovered that the free verse was borrowed from “Sky Lotus” by Elizabeth J. Coatsworth, published in the July 1919 issue of Asia. In Faig’s estimation:
If his coauthoress Miss Crofts was responsible for the initial draft of their collaboration, I suspect that the introductory paragraphs concluding with the citation of the enchanting blank verse are most of what remains of her work. Perhaps the basic idea of the six divine bards encountered in Marcia’s dream and the ending scene with Marcia admiring the work of the latest messenger-poet sent by the Gods were also Crofts’─she may also have chosen the quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. But the richness of classical reference which one finds in the dream sequence certainly owes much to Lovecraft’s collaboration.
Whatever the exact contributions by the respective authors, there is no question that for Lovecraft this was a very unusual story. In the 1919-1920 period he was writing stories like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Tree”—most scholars find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft wrote:
Attired simply, in a low-cut evening dress of black, she appeared outwardly a typical product of modern civilisation; but tonight she felt the immeasurable gulf that separated her soul from all her prosaic surroundings.
Given that Lovecraft is not known elsewhere to describe décolletage, this may be a fair assessment, albeit a superficial one. Certainly the choice of a female protagonist is unusual for Lovecraft, although he would do so again in other stories written in collaboration with female friends and clients, such as “The Curse of Yig” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Much of the mood and ideas expressed in the later part of the piece echo elements of Lovecraft’s own personal philosophy and which echo somewhat his more famous conceptions:
In thy yearning has thou divined what no mortal else, saving only a few whom the world rejects, remembereth: that the Gods were never dead, but only sleeping the sleep and dreaming the dreams of Gods in lotos-filled Hesperian gardens beyond the golden sunset.
This is reminiscent both of Cthulhu (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” /“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and a possible inspiration from reading Lord Dunsany. Yet is it not also appropriate for a young schoolteacher, whose only escape some days from prosaic life might be to dip into Milton and Keats, to dream of old gods and lose herself for a time in poetry? Lovecraft, it appears, could certainly relate to that.
Of their “hidden collaborator” Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth, not much needs be said; the striking imagery of her poetry certainly helps set the tone of the story. The general surmise among scholars is that if the free verse was part of Crofts contribution, so too was her failure to properly cite Coatsworth. Whether Lovecraft ever caught the uncredited quotation is, like much of the story, unknown. Certainly, it is interesting to think that Coatsworth, who is best known for his series of children’s books, inadvertently shared a collaboration with Lovecraft.
“Poetry and the Gods” was not the first time a woman writer would collaborate with Lovecraft, nor the last. It was the first of such collaborative efforts that was published, and in many ways it sets the stage for Lovecraft’s future collaborations, where the exact details of contribution are unknown, and the only thing sure is that on this one, Lovecraft did not go it alone.
Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help with this article.
Though I can’t deny that Lovecraft has influenced my work, I couldn’t relate to the exalted place he seemed to occupy, and wondered if the difference could be ascribed to gender. More to the point, I made a sweeping generalization rather off-handedly: “Lovecraft does nothing for me,” I said. “That wasn’t the horror the girls were passing around in fifth grade. V. C. Andrews is to girls what Lovecraft is to boys.”
Of course, I was wrong—plenty of women have found Lovecraft very important indeed—but I don’t think I was entirely wrong.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu460
The degree to which H. P. Lovecraft has become a character as enthralling to fans as any of his creations is evident in the body of fiction that has developed around him. Works like Grant Morrison’s “Lovecraft in Heaven” (1994) and Alan Moore’s “Recognition” (1995) focus on aspects of his life story—his death by cancer, his syphilitic father—and ruminate and expand on the mind of the man who created Cthulhu. Veronica Schanoes in “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” adds to this body of work. In her own words:
In this piece, I wonder about Lovecraft’s own monstrous generation; about the racist horrors that founded the United States and what they mean to someone who saw himself as an avatar of eighteenth-century America; the horror of the Other that took the form of Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, and what that means to me, a a twenty-first-century Jew in New York City.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu460
While this is a work of fiction, Schanoes takes her impetus from fact: her building-up of the story piece by piece is done with all the care and attention of a hoax—and indeed, her skill is such that if the initial section (“Monstrous Generation”) was published as non-fiction, it would probably be convincing to many. Victoria Nelson’s essay “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies” (1996) made similar suggestive claims that Lovecraft inherited congenital syphilis from his father—but where Nelson was perhaps unaware that Lovecraft’s medical records indicated he did not have the disease (Price, “Did Lovecraft Have Syphilis?” in Crypt of Cthulhu #53, 1988), Schanoes’ artfully insinuations are a stepping stone to more profound revelations.
The true threat is never external—it’s not the dreadful non-Aryan immigrants flooding into the United States; it’s not the inhuman alien beings, worshipped as gods, who would barely notice humanity as they crushed it. The true threat always comes from the inside, the self rising up beyond all reason, beyond even survival. In the end, the most monstrous growth is always already one’s own.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 465
The great insight that Schanoes shows in this piece is to take the common and oft-repeated themes of Lovecraft’s life and literature and to look at them from another angle. Lovecraft declared, on his return to this city of his birth after failing to make it in New York City, “I Am Providence”—which S. T. Joshi took for the title of his mammoth biography. Yet it is Schanoes, here, who takes Lovecraft literally and digs into the history of old Providence; and nothing gets very old without having a multitude of sins.
I write and publish about Jews. Most of my protagonists, unless otherwise specified, are Ashkenazi Jews. Well, why should the goyim have all the fantastic, the speculative, the future imperfect? My editors have mostly been Jewish, too.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469
When addressing Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, Schanoes’ perspective shifts. She addresses the audience directly, personally. Why should she not? Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism is a subject that affects her personally—not so much because he personally can discriminate against her, since he has been safely dead for several decades, but his words and influence still survive as something Schanoes has to deal with.
Which is almost a microcosm of the subject of Lovecraft’s discrimination itself. Why does it matter, when Lovecraft is dead and gone? Because he isn’t gone, not entirely. His work lives on. For those whose grandparents survived the Holocaust—and remembered relatives that would not—Lovecraft’s remarks in the 1920s and 30s carry an edge today that people who cannot relate directly do not feel.
I do not like H. P. Lovecraft, and I doubt he would have liked me.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469
It would be unfair to point out gaps in Schanoes’ narrative, argue over her presentation of the facts, or suggest nuance to her conclusions. It would also be missing the point. While she quotes accurately from Lovecraft’s letters and the memoir of his wife (Sonia Haft Greene) about his life, this is still a work of fiction, not a polemic essay or hit piece.
What it is is a reflection of Lovecraft from an angle that readers are not used to seeing. Lovecraft scholars and biographers such as S. T. Joshi have not ignored his anti-semitism in the least—without their work in publishing Lovecraft’s letters, Schanoes would not have had the raw material for her piece—but none of them can present Lovecraft as seen through the eyes of a contemporary Jewish woman. The mirror that Schanoes holds up may be a funhouse one, with its little distortions for rhetorical and narrative effect, but it works precisely because the subject is still recognizable.
Veronica Schanoes’ “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu(2016). It has not yet been reprinted.
If you had not used Ms. Lovecraft’s text as the basis for our novel, Fires on the Sea would have languished as unknown as its first authoress. What a loss to us all that would have been!
—Esther M. Friesner, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” in Cthulhu 2000 (1991) 244
The initial premise of “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is designed to knock the steadfast and serious fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos off their rocker: what if one of H. P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts was being re-written and published as a contemporary romance novel, trashy cover and sex scenes and all? For a writer whom many fans had raised up on a pedestal, both in real life and in fiction, the juxtaposition of tone and genres is designed to raise hackles. Then when the knife is firmly inserted, Esther M. Friesner starts to twist it just enough to tickle the funnybone…
There is a fine line between a reference and an in-joke. Readers intimately familiar with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft recognize the reference in the title to “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, and that recognition preps the reader for the story: it helps to establish the world. In-jokes are similar in that they are never explained to the reader; either they get them or they do not. The elaborate riffing on Gnophkehs in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price is an in-joke, only really comprehensible to someone aware of the fan-scholar debate on the subject. While it contains a lot of clever wordplay and humorous imagery and characterization, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is built on Mythos in-jokes, from by-the-way references to various Mythos stories to a groaner of a knock-knock joke from a gang of shoggoths. Yet there is a lot more at work in the story.
“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” blends fiction and reality: set in a contemporary (1990) world of cappucino machines and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but one where both Lovecraft and his literary creations such as Arkham both coexist. While the former is uncommon, the latter is very typical of a certain type of Mythos fiction. Lovecraft himself would drop references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith into stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; August Derleth would go Lovecraft one better by dropping in references to Lovecraft and the Arkham House collection of his tales next to the Necronomicon. Derleth was not doing this tongue-in-cheek, he was building an idea that Lovecraft had based some of his tales on reality—an idea revisited by later authors such as Robert Bloch in his novel Strange Aeons (1978) and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (2015-2017). Where other authors use that as a jumping-off point to reflect on, revisit, or revise Lovecraft’s fiction, Friesner does it to underline the silliness of the premise, to take off the kid gloves and show nothing is off-limits.
If the gloves are off for Lovecraft, Friesner also isn’t worried about bloodying her knuckles against the cut-throat world of book contracts, agents, and editors, and the whole innate silliness of the romance industry. Most of the jokes made are at the expense of Robin Pennyworth, the sole male reader in a female-dominated book publisher. His awareness of his failure to meet up to 1980s expectations of masculine attitude and behavior, reminiscent (if not so focused on homophobia) of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, is meat for his domineering boss Marybeth Conran, who is quick with a cutting remark like:
If everything Chuckie Ward tells me is true, she’s led a life of such isolation that when you stumbled into her life, no wonder she mistook you for a man.
Sarah Pickman, the object of Robin’s amour and the co-author of Fires of the Sea, is portrayed far more positively than Conran—whose only goal is to rule her department with an iron fist and bind the writers with the worst possible contracts. In many subtle ways, Friesner plays up her parallels with her supposed ancestor H. P. Lovecraft—reclusive nature, thriftiness, and the invitation by a romantic partner to New York City all being obvious homages to Lovecraft’s nature and biography.
So too, Friesner has put some effort into the references to the romance novel itself, alluding to characters and scenes that would be appropriate if Lovecraft himself had written an Innsmouth-based romance novel…which does beg the question of whether or not she was aware of previous efforts in this direction. Robert M. Price, writing as “Sally Theobald” (a play on one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms) published an eldritch confessional-style yarn titled “I Wore The Brassiere of Doom” (1986); Brian McNaughton, writing as “Sheena Clayton” had written an Innsmouth-based erotic/romance novel titled Tides of Desire (1983). Price, like Friesner, focused on the silliness of the serious and asexual Lovecraft trying his hand at such an unfamiliar genre; McNaughton was aiming less at humor and more at a serious erotic paranormal romance work (although he was a couple decades early for that particular genre). Both ideas have bones: Edward Lee would revisit the idea of Lovecraft maintaining a sideline in erotic fiction with Trolley No. 1852 (2009)—while Friesner was playing the idea for laughs, in the long run it looks like there’s at least some market for those kind of materials.
The topicality of the story might make it something less than classic; its references to late-80s American culture are already dated nearly three decades after its original publication, such as the final whopper:
[…] while I looked and looked for mention of a pace-name you use, consulting the Britannica and the geographical listings in the Unabridged, it only shows up a an adjective. It sounds so familiar. I think I may have heard of a Trump resort located there, but correct me if I’m wrong.
Where is Stygia?
This is at least a more subtle insertion of a Trump reference into Lovecraftiana than Trump Vs. Cthulhu: Two Small Hands, One Big Problem(2018), and is actually a very clever final in-joke referencing the works of Robert E. Howard (who, along with Clark Ashton Smith, get nods in the story). Lovecraft had written in a letter:
There is no such name as Stygia … the adjective Stygian being derived from the name Styx—the River of the Dead. Two-Gun Bob misuses the word-root when he speaks of a country called “Stygia”. Indeed, he takes frequent & unwarranted liberties with classical names ( or variants of names) in devising a nomenclature for his prehistoric world. Price & I have laboured with him in vain on that point.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 28 Sep 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 290
This is Friesner showing her homework and giving the knife one last little twist, this time to Robert E. Howard fans, although her subtle references to Red Sonja owe more to the Marvel comic books or the 1985 film than anything Ms. Cromwell (er, Robert E. Howard) ever wrote.
“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” was first published in World Fantasy Convention 1990: An H.P. Lovecraft Centenary Celebration (1990), and reprinted in Friesner’s collection It’s Been Fun (1991), the anthologies Cthulhu 2000 (1995) and Cthulhu and the Coeds, or, Kids & Squids (2000); it has also been translated into French as “L’amour est une indicible purulence” and published in Fées & gestes (1998). Her story “The Shunned Trailer” was published in The Cackle of Cthulhu(2018).
Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
Of Herburt East, who was my lover in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme arousal tinged with terror. This fear-tainted arousal is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Peniskatonic University Medical School in Jerkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly; no less also did our two lean masculine bodies entwined in illicit passion, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the lust is less blinding, and the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—Lula Lisbon (“D. P. Lustcraft”), “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (emphasis mine)
Of Kanye West, who was my friend in college and after he dropped out, I can speak only with extreme sadness. This dysphoria is not due altogether to the sickening manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than twenty years ago, when we were in the first year of our course at the Chicago State University in Illinois. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his musical experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. (Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.) Now that we are no longer friends and the spell is broken, my side of the story can finally be told. The actual pain is far greater now than it was then. Memories and possibilities are ever more melancholic than the realities.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)
While many writers have attempted to pastiche or parody the work of H. P. Lovecraft, few writers have gone so far as to take advantage of the fact that many of Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain, so as to directly rewrite, add on to, and edit his text in such a way as to create a new and original work of fiction. Joshua Chaplinsky’s Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) and Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) both take as their source text Lovecraft’s early serial “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), but are set in widely different genres, and the artistic choices that the two writers reflect interestingly both on what they are writing, and how they choose to interpret Lovecraft’s original work.
Chaplinsky’s take on the concept is of a literary mashup, echoing efforts like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The success of the story lies in the careful attention to detail, weaving factual elements of Kanye’s life and attitude into Lovecraft’s prose while keeping the exuberance and hyperbole of both. Kanye West really did drop out of Chicago State University to pursue his music career, so reflecting that aspect of his life in place of Herbert West’s attendance at medical school is both accurate and requires changes to the narrative—but just as much of Kanye’s life is twisted to more closely resemble Herbert’s, the key change being when Kanye decides to use his music to reanimate the dead. The fun of the story is not just in the pastiche of Lovecraft’s prose or the parody of Kanye’s antics, but those occasional perfect moments when the two blend together:
To the vanished Herbert West and to me the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when West muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
To the vanished Kanye West and I the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when Kanye muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, the track wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)
Where Kanye requires grafting on considerable material to the original, Lula Lisbon’s homoerotic re-visioning of Lovecraft’s story requires a shift in genre as well as tone. Where Chaplinsky seeks to draw fiction and reality closer together, so the two Wests’ paths coincide at key narrative moments, Lisbon seeks to inject the erotic into the horror narrative—and the key device by which she accomplishes this takes a decidedly more mystical bent:
He revealed to me one night that through his sizable member coursed a most rare and precious gift: his semen was a re-animating solution, blessed through an incident in which a love-smitten demi-goddess had granted an ancestor the power of bestowing immortal life by way of his seed.
—Lula Lisbon, “Herburt East: Refuckinator”
Like many erotic parodies, the focus of this text is often the insertion of an erotic scene not included in the original. This is a practice of some long standing, with examples in the horror literature genre including The Adult Version of Dracula (1970) and The Adult Version of Frankenstein (1970), both by Hal Kantor. Part of the skill of the author is in how these scenes are woven into the narrative; whereas Kanye replaces Herbert West, and the narrative is basically his own retold in the frame of Lovecraft’s prose, Herburt East follows substantially the same plot, only with many homoerotic additions.
Both texts take the opportunity to play on the outrageousness of the original, which is itself a kind of parody of the lurid supernatural thrillers of the period, and written by Lovecraft strictly as a potboiler:
In this enforced, laboured, & artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings & repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 7 Oct 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 219
The serial nature of “Herbert West” possibly makes it more attractive for parody, as the story is broken into distinct episodes which permit changes of scene and characters and keeps up the narrative pace. Certainly both authors were at pains to keep the character of both of the chapter openings and closing—and perhaps surprisingly, both kept in versions of what is probably the most problematic scene in Lovecraft’s story.
The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
Few of Lovecraft’s stories have black characters, and this is arguably his most racist depiction of an African-American character, emphasizing the prejudice of the day that black people were quite literally lower on the scale of evolution, closer to apes and gorillas. That such depiction were not uncommon in pulp fiction, such as in Seabury Quinn’s “The Drums of Damballah” (1930) does not excuse it here. The description does serve two important narrative points. The first is to emphasize the physical power of the character, the second is to emphasize the racial prejudice of the unnamed narrator. One of the key moments of this episode in “Herbert West” is that the narrator and West try their reanimation fluid on it an “it was wholly unresponsive to every solution we injected in its black arm; solutions prepared from experience with white specimens only”—in other words, they assume a biological difference in race to be at fault. However, they later discover that the reanimation serum did work (ironically, given Lovecraft’s sentiments in his letters, proving that there is no biochemical difference between white and black people)…but that the subject had also devolved into cannibalism (violence being characteristic of the reanimated, regardless of race).
Lisbon preserves most of Lovecraft’s original text for this episode, with the main interjection being an extended erotic scene between West and the narrator: she chooses to focus on the “fire all six shots of a revolver” from the opening of the episode and counterbalance it with sex ejaculations. Chaplinsky’s take is more baroque; although he retains a surprising amount of the original text, the black boxer is replaced with Biggie Smalls. Both of them retain, substantially unchanged, the final visual of the episode.
For that visitor was neither Italian nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
(text identical in Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator”)
For that visitor was neither forgetful employee nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a bug-eyed, ash-grey apparition, covered with sewage and fecal matter and caked with blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)
The repetition of the text is an acknowledgement of the importance of this specific scene, that Lovecraft had captured a powerful visual in the horrible evidence of cannibalism (it being remembered that this was long before zombies craved the flesh of the living in popular fiction). The differences too are telling: in Lovecraft’s original story, there is implicit bias against the ethnic Italians whose child is kidnapped and eaten; Chaplinsky replaces them with studio assistants, which is in its own way a comment (whether intentional or not) on the attitudes toward the lowest-paid members of the production process. Lisbon’s leaving these elements unaddressed feels like a missed opportunity to address some of the subtext or context in Lovecraft’s work—but that may simply be because she was focusing on other aspects.
One aspect that both Chaplinsky and Lisbon both address is the idea of a homosexual reading or subtext to Lovecraft’s original work. “Herbert West” involves the eponymous mad scientist partnered for considerable periods with an unnamed but presumably male associate who narrates the text; this is in a way a direct parallel in many ways to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler Dr. Watson, and their strong homosocial bond is reflected in several of Lovecraft’s other works, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Hound.” Yet to contemporary audiences, such close friendships between men are often misconstrued as having homosexual connotations, as was discussed in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg. Chaplinsky chooses to address this aspect up front, writing in the first paragraph:
Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.
This is neither a confirmation nor a denial, but an aspect of Kanye and the narrator’s relationship which he plays with throughout the story, letting the readers choose how to interpret certain scenes while never explicitly confirming or denying Kanye’s sexual preferences or whether their relationship is intimate. Lisbon chooses to emphasize and make explicit the homoerotic relationship between East and the narrator, and strives to capitalize on aspects of Lovecraft’s text which highlight the intimacy of their relationship. Other writers have made similar, if less overtly erotic, interpretations of Lovecraft’s relationships—The Chronicles of Dr. Herbert West comic book written by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco has the narrator as a woman, in a romantic relationship with West; “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan similarly makes a female of one of the two male characters from “The Hound.”
Neither Lisbon or Chaplinsky were looking to supplant or provide another episode to an existing work, but to re-imagine that work for their own ends, and as far as those aims go, they both succeeded. Lisbon’s expansion of Lovecraft’s narrative is played for laughs as much as titillation, and veers toward the campier end of homoerotic Lovecraftian horror narratives, something in the vein of David J. West. Chaplinsky’s narrative is much more ambitious, but also ultimately much more period-driven: one day, Kanye will die (though probably not by being decapitated by a reanimated Jay-Z), and his star will fade so that the clever pop-culture references will fade.
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I
One of the critical attractions of Lovecraft’s work is being in the public domain, where anyone can play with the material. For most pasticheurs and parodists, this does not mean literally rewriting Lovecraft’s plots or recycling large sections of his text—but those are valid creative approaches to the material, and should be understood and appreciated as such. These variations-on-the-text are as much a part of keeping Lovecraft’s work alive and relevant in the present day as any other.
Erotica author Lula Lisbon originally published the episodes of Herburt East under the name “D. P. Lustcraft”, the complete ebook of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) is still available for sale, although Lisbon appears not to have published anything since 2015.
Joshua Chaplinsky originally published Kanye West—Reanimator through Yolo House in 2015. He has since slightly revised and expanded the book, adding a foreword and the story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep in Redhook, Brooklyn” in Kanye West—Reanimator: the Re-Reanimated Edition(2018).